Friday, February 17, 2012

Column: Greetings from Ellie Kinnaird

Dear Friends,
I am a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety. This week, we heard a report on a new judicial department program to help those who receive a traffic ticket avoid a court appearance (and lawyer’s fee) by paying the fine and court costs by credit card. Between March and December 2011, 167,473 total citation payments were made by credit card—330 per day. This saved not only the public, but 7,600 of courthouse staff hours.
In addition, in three pilot counties, court papers can be filed electronically and court notices and information can be retrieved online 24 hours a day.
While this seems logical and efficient, there are a couple of bumps in the way. First, while the fine and court costs are fixed, credit card companies charge a fee that can’t be taken out of the fine and court costs. So either the state has to eat the fees through an appropriation—which add up to a large amount—or the credit card companies have to allow a transaction surcharge. MasterCard and American Express allow the state a government discount, but VISA will not. (Now only the Revenue Department will take payment by VISA card.) The state also has not installed the machines in the court house for direct credit card payment at the site. The legislature could investigate that at a later time.
But a bigger concern is that under the present system a person can go to court and get a deferred prosecution if they attend driving school. But when a fine and court costs are paid by credit card, that opportunity is not available. In addition, the infraction is on the person’s record for insurance purposes. And under our appropriations system, those monies collected do not go to the courts to offset the costs to the court system but to the general fund.
Another report was presented to the committee by Legal Aid of North Carolina and the two independent legal service offices. The average person served by these entities has an annual income of $12,000 (contrast that with the 1 percent who may make $12,000 an hour.) Legal Aid clients are working families, children, the elderly, and 75 percent are women. In addition to attorneys, paralegals and support staff, thousands of lawyers throughout the state provide pro bono work for clients, including several legislator-lawyers. Legal Aid provides free legal services for low-income people facing the loss of a home, family livelihood and personal safely. They do not handle personal injury, medical malpractice or criminal matters. Legal Aid has suffered big cuts in the last few budgets, even as the need has increased during the recession.

Two years ago, a bill was introduced to regulate and curtail the offenses of puppy mills. The bill passed the Senate but did not pass the House because special interest groups lobbied to kill the bill, e.g. the Pork Council was concerned because such humane treatment requirements might be applied to their industry. Last week a bull dog puppy mill was discovered and hundreds of dogs in terrible condition were rescued from deplorable surroundings. These businesses go on throughout the state, as are revealed by news items. Time to pass the bill.
I also attended the circus with my granddaughter and was upset to see magnificent tigers, elephants and horses forced to perform tricks such as standing and walking on their hind legs and laying down in formations on command. Some years ago, Orange County banned circuses with animals, and, after seeing these animals forced to perform unnatural activities, foreign from their natural habitat, I understand why.

I have written in the past about Person Industries that serves the disabled. PI operates the recycling for Person County, employing many Person Industries people and helping the environment. PI has now have added another environmental measure: LED lighting and motion sensors to activate lights in rooms used infrequently. They are indeed leaders in the community.

On Feb. 20 at 11 a.m., a Town Hall Meeting will be held in the Legislative auditorium, titled “Bring Our War Dollars Home/Restore Our Communities." It will connect the huge amount spent (more than $1 trillion for Iraq and Afghanistan) on wars while our schools, mental health and other needs are not being met at home. Congressmen Walter Jones, David Price and Brad Miller will speak along with Matthew Hoh, the State Department officer to Afghanistan and former Marine who resigned in protest over our policy in Afghanistan. The public is invited.

An interesting observation from Rapper Ja Rule, serving time in prison, commenting on his fellow inmates, former N. Y. State Comptroller and Tyco International CEO, “Outside, you don’t meet guys like this every day.”

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